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Who's managing this relationship?

Analyst Sharon Ward says companies grouse about enterprise software because they expect the applications to do the one thing they can't really do: manage a relationship.

OK, I admit it. I love software. I love all the features and the switches and the user interfaces. If truth be told, I'm pretty convinced that software can do almost anything, solve almost any problem.

Software is cool. That's why all the talk about CRM implementation failures puzzles me. Can all those very smart companies be buying dreadful software? Is there actually that much bad software around?

Of course not. The "failures" are happening in many cases because the companies are asking software to do the one thing it can't ever really do: manage a relationship.

Apparently, this comes as a surprise to many people. It must, because we keep introducing more and more types of "relationship management" software. We have CRM, PRM, SRM, ERM--each and every one of which promises to somehow manage our relationships more profitably, efficiently, equitably, whatever. And it can't, because relationships are about people, not data.

If I call a friend to make a lunch date, then enter the details of time and place into my Palm, does that make the Palm an FRM (friend relationship management) system? Of course not. It makes it a convenient repository for data. The "friend management" happened when one of us cared enough to call the other to touch base.

The same principle holds true in business relationships. Customer, supplier, partner, employee--they all boil down to people. If companies don't like and respect their customers, no investment in software will improve that state of affairs. In addition to buying software, companies that want to improve customer relationships should invest in changing employee attitudes and then deliver quality products and services. Don't pay lip service to the concepts of customer care--mean them, believe them, live them.

In addition to buying software, companies that want to improve customer relationships should invest in changing employee attitudes and then deliver quality products and services.
Supplier-relationship management software alone won't improve the efficiency of a supply chain. The biggest improvements will happen when companies treat their key suppliers like trusted partners, working together for the mutual good of each. Companies can't treat suppliers like adversaries, or like a public convenience, and expect to get superb service and "turn on a dime" responses. But they can expect such things from carefully nurtured, respectful relationships that have been cultivated over time by individual people.

Employee-relationship management, the newest kid on the block, is the one that bugs me the most. Communication and mutual respect are key to retaining good employees. Mass communication is efficient. The ability to manage benefits or expense reporting online is efficient too. But these cornerstones of ERM will never develop a company's work force into a world-class team. That takes time, effort, personal interaction, trust and respect from management.

Along with the investment in ERM software, many companies need to invest in developing corporate values. Then they need to invest in helping employees embrace these values, and not just put them on a plaque. Only employees who are respected and empowered by their companies can show respect to customers and suppliers.

What concerns me about the proliferation of relationship-management software is the widespread assumption that merely implementing the software will fix whatever problems exist inside the organization, or with customers or partners. When did we forget that it's people that matter in any relationship, whether personal or professional?

I once worked for a guy who taught me a great rule for customer relationship management. He said, "When making a deal with a customer, do what's fair--then give the other guy a little more." What customer wouldn't love that? We had one rule in our employee manual: the Golden Rule. What employee wouldn't love that? See the trend? Respect, fairness, communication, empowerment. Those are the real secrets to relationship management.

Software is a great place to store, sort, report or record data. But it's no substitute for a smile.
I'm not saying don't buy software. As I said earlier, I love software. But software is software. It can make it easier, faster and more efficient to accomplish the mundane tasks necessary to business. It can store phone numbers. It can remind me to follow up with a key prospect. It can help me explain my product or brand to customers and partners. It can reduce the time customers spend on hold, or the number of times they have to give me their account number. It can configure products and record orders and shipments.

But B2B, B2C, B2P, B2E--it makes no difference--there's always a real person on the other end of every transaction. Software is a great place to store, sort, report or record data. But it's no substitute for a smile.